The wind howled northward, as normal for this time of the year. The angle of planetary spin resulted in a decreased amount of sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere during this portion of the orbit cycle. The atmosphere precipitated onto the surface as ammonia and water snow, lowering the air pressure, creating a stable gale south to north. The sands shifted and shifted again. A tip of a stone structure, worried by years of drifting particles, poked slightly above the surrounding dunes.
“There!” The man called to his companion over the radio built into his environment suit and pointed at the tip of a hexagon. The atmosphere of this planet wasn’t breathable…yet.
“It could be just another freak of nature,” the woman, similarly dressed, said. “There are stones all over this plateau. This one is perhaps a bit more regular…”
“I know. I know,” he interrupted yet another pointless discussion on how his obsession with finding the remains of some long lost civilization was just a corny fantasy, all evidence just a fluke of the abrasive nature of the endless shifting sands. He lifted his hand to his chest, where underneath several layers of protective clothing hang a small intricately carved piece of sandstone on a simple plastic cord. Hugh found that “artifact” a decade ago when he was part of the very first expedition to terraform this dusty rock. It was lying in front of his habitat, by the hatch. He was certain it wasn’t there the night before, and then like some spirit, it just materialized where he was sure to find it.
The small, intricately carved rock caused a sensation back home, but when no other evidence emerged, the eye of the crowd moved on to other things, the idea of the artifact dismissed and forgotten. Hugh carried the thing around his neck since then. And Enry-o made fun of him every time he looked askance at some pattern on the cliff or a tip of a rock formation that seemed too regular or too engineered to be carved by nature. In all the years since his first find, Hugh hadn’t discovered another piece as wonderful as the first. Just a bunch of almosts…
He hit the exposed hexagon with his boot, as much in frustration as in the desire to uncover a few more centimeters. The rock didn’t move or crumble, and Hugh’s foot experienced the full force of his own kick.
“Did you hurt yourself?” Enry-o’s voice carried a touch of snigger on top a genuine note of worry.
“I’m fine.” He sped up to catch up with his partner, drudging up the gentle slope of the plateau towards the wind-powered generator at the top of the rim. It was knocked down by the winds again.
“Hugh?” About twenty meters ahead, Enry-o was examining something in the sand. Her voice sounded breathless from excitement or exertion. A stray thought that Enry-o’s suit malfunctioned raced through Hugh’s head. But that couldn’t be — they were a team and he would know if any alarms went off in her suit, just as she’d know if something happened with his equipment. But something in the way Enry-o called to him made him race to her.
“What is it?” he managed. The short run left him breathless. Hugh long ago got used to the lesser gravity, but low oxygen was more problematic. The protocol was never to run.
Enry-o didn’t answer right away. She continued to dig, making a kind of swimming motion with her gloved fingers, clearing a protruding rock.
“Another one,” she said.
“Like the hexagon you found earlier,” she clarified.
Hugh bent down to take a better look. The top of the rock was uneven and weathered, but the part that was until just now buried by the sand was a perfectly polished regular six-sided column. This was not the work of a randomly blowing dust; it was made, created for a purpose. Hugh just stared, forgetting to breathe.
“There,” she said. “I thought I saw something.” She used her glove to scrub the exposed surface, and Hugh had to physically stop himself from slapping her hand away. It was too precious for such rough treatment. But Enry-o kept brushing and digging, and after the initial shock, Hugh saw what she saw — an inscription.
It was a spectacular engraving. The thin lines curved and spiraled around each other, twisting over and under, each depth suggesting a different plane in three dimensions. It’s vaguely reminiscent of calligraphy, Hugh thought.
“We should take a picture,” Enry-o said. “I can go get a camera,” she offered. But the sun was quickly disappearing behind the ridge of the red mountains in the distance. By the time they got a camera and took the shot, the lines might not even be visible in the low light.
“Later,” Hugh finally said. It was tempting to document the find, but they could do so tomorrow. “Let’s look if there’re more of these here,” Hugh said and set out to walk in an ever-expanding spiral pattern around the artifact. Enry-o did the same a few meters farther out.
Hugh was slow and methodical. Enry-o raced impatiently, trying to cover as much ground as possible before the light was gone. Hugh could hear her heavy breathing through the comm. He was sure that Enry-o could pick up his racing heart — the pounding of blood in Hugh’s ears was almost deafening.
The sound stopped transmitting almost immediately after the scream. Hugh turned to where his partner was just a moment ago, but there was nothing there, just the same bland rust-colored sand.
“Enry-o?” Inside his helmet, Hugh pulled up the various readouts that were supposed to track the location and the basic status of his partner. But everything was coming up blank. There was no connection to Enry-o. It didn’t make any sense. He walked towards the last place he saw her.
The sun was very low now. The helmet-mounted lamp on Hugh’s suit turned on by itself when it reached his personal threshold for low visibility. He moved his head to make gentle sweeps of the landscape, trying to spot Enry-o’s footprints, but the wind relentlessly removed all evidence. The rescue procedures drilled into his head took over, the panic pushed back to be processed at a later date. All of his senses were focused on locating Enry-o.
It seemed like forever, but it was only a few meters before the ground gave way, and Hugh felt himself drop below the shifting sand.
Hugh landed on his right shoulder; thankfully, the ground was covered with a thick layer of sand. Some of the lights on his suit were broken and only his left field of view was dimly illuminated. Enry-o wasn’t in a narrow circle of light. His shoulder hurt.
Above, there were broken hexagonal arches, but enough structure remained that there was no question that this space was designed. Hugh couldn’t make out any opening above.
He tried accessing his heads-up displays. Entry-o’s pulse and breathing graphs came up — she was alive and, given that they were connected again, somewhere close.
“Enry-o!” he screamed. He set his microphone on max and also tried to project his voice out into the thin atmosphere. The sound didn’t travel well in rarefied air, still it was worth a try.
“Hugh?” A small voice echoed in a distance.
Hugh heard Enry-o from outside of his suit — either his speakers were broken, or her microphone was malfunctioning. “Stay where you are,” he called. There was no light from Enry-o; Hugh judged the direction by sound alone.
“Enry-o?” He crawled to her. His shoulder was a smoldering pit of pain that he found hard to ignore. He needed some first aide; Enry-o had a survival kit in her backpack. Hugh’s suit had a water pack and was equipped to recycle liquids and air. Unfortunately, Hugh couldn’t bring up the displays to show him if any of these necessities were working properly after the fall. He was also vaguely curious about how much power he had left, but that too was a mystery.
After what seemed like forever, his light finally bounced off the silver coating of Enry-o’s suit. She was laying on her back, looking straight up, legs and arms out like a starfish.
“Are you okay?” Hugh asked. If she was hurt, he didn’t know how he’d be able to get her up to the surface — not with his injury.
“Yeah,” she said. Hugh exhaled in relief. “My lights are broken. I’m using yours to look.”
“Find anything?” Hugh asked.
“Nothing. It must have been a slide, rather than a direct fall.”
“The way I, and presumably you, fell down here,” she said. “Thank you for coming for me, by the way.”
“Of course,” Hugh said. “Your feed cut out and I’m sure I heard you scream. When I turned to look, you were gone. I followed protocol and searched using the radial zig pattern–”
“And you found me,” Enry-o finished for him.
Hugh had more to say, but he let it go. “Are you hurt?”
“Everything moves fine, but I might have a concussion. I’m feeling a bit dizzy.”
“Can you move? I hurt my shoulder and I don’t think I could–”
“I can walk,” she cut him off again.
“Good. I’d like to borrow your first aid kit, if you don’t mind,” Hugh said. Without a word, she took off her backpack and handed it to him. He would have pulled out his medical kit and offered to help, if the situation was reversed. “Thank you,” he said, hiding the resentment from his voice. The kit was designed for field conditions; it was easy to administer a dose of painkiller even one-handed. “Do you need anything from here?” he asked.
“I already used some,” she said and took her backpack and put it back on. Hugh was clearly not in the position to shoulder it. “Can you point your light above this arch, please?” she asked, gesturing to the highly curved hexagonal branch jetting out from the sand not too far from her feet and disappearing somewhere in the tangle of similar formations above their heads.
Hugh moved his head to shine light in the direction Enry-o wanted. Many hexagonal branches seemed to bifurcate in a fractal pattern until the roof of the cave-like structure turned into a stone netting of intricate design. It was lovely to behold, even if the small lights of Hugh’s suit highlighted but a tiny fraction of the whole.
“It doesn’t have to be intelligent design,” Enry-o said.
“Hmm?” Hugh felt like he was thinking far slower than Enry-o, making him consider that he too might have a slight concussion.
“The formation,” she said. “It didn’t have to be created by an intelligent species.”
“But surely it wasn’t shaped this way by wind and sand,” Hugh said. The overlapping ropes of stone twisted around and onto themselves and their neighbors, making knots and loops that supported the weight of many tons of sand and rock upon the surface.
“Insects have been known to create elaborate structures,” Enry-o said.
“But you at least agree with me that this was made and not formed by some natural phenomenon, right?” Hugh asked.
“Absolutely.” Enry-o brushed herself off — sand and dust covered her, turning her silver suit slightly gold. After a few vigorous jerks, her lamps turned back on. “That’s a relief,” she said, moving her head from side to side to get a better view of their surroundings. “Why don’t you try dusting yourself? Perhaps your right light can be coaxed into working, too.”
Hugh used his hands to “towel” his helmet. He hit the light fixture a few times for a good measure. And just as he was about to announce that it didn’t work, the lights sputtered back to life.
“Well, that’s very convenient,” Enry-o approved.
“Yes,” Hugh said. “Incredibly.” They now both had a full set of lights.
“I don’t see a way up,” Enry-o announced after she did a systematic search of the ceiling from their position.
“No,” Hugh agreed. He already did a thorough inspection and didn’t find the “slide” that Enry-o hypothesized.
“But there is a way down,” she said, pointing to an opening between the slabs of carved rock, miraculously free of sand. Hugh supposed that the loose material just drained down the hole.
“Are you suggesting that we investigate?”
“Do you have something better to do?”
“I’d prefer trying to get back to the surface,” he said.
“After a decade of searching, you finally found some evidence of a long lost civilization and you want to go back to the base?”
“Aside from your pack, we have nothing of provisions, no tools, and not even a way to get back out–”
“But we have plenty of power,” she countered.
Hugh checked his heads-up displays again and sure enough, not only were they all working again, but his power indicator showed 100% charge.
“We were in the solar charge mode until the last moment,” Enry-o provided an explanation before Hugh could voice his surprise. “By tomorrow morning, our group would know we didn’t return from righting the power generator and will mount a rescue mission.”
“Yes, but after ten years of fixing the darn thing, this was the first time we’ve ever stumbled onto something extraordinary,” Hugh said.
“Again, it’s a problem for another day,” Enry-o brushed him off. “Tonight we explore.”
Hugh thought about it, his hand back to patting the artifact under his suit, and finally nodded his approval. They had nothing to lose by looking around. Tomorrow, people will come looking for them. Tonight, they might learn something…remarkable!
Enry-o pulled out a length of cord from her pack and looked around. “Do you think these are strong enough to support our weight?” she asked pointing to a knot of twisted rock with complicated curlicues etched into it.
Hugh shrugged, walked over, wrapped his good arm about several thin hexagonal twisting columns, and pulled his feet up, hanging on the formation. “Seems okay,” he said after a few moments of swinging around.
“Well, then,” Enry-o said and tied one end of her cord around the nexus of columns. After yanking on it hard several times, she attached a double-axle camming unit — a way to secure a suit to the cord for a safe descent.
“Me first,” Hugh said and took the cord from Enry-o. “If I don’t–”
“Oh climb down already,” Enry-o interrupted his chivalry and pushed him toward the ragged edge of the opening.
Hugh got on his hands and knees and put his head into the hole, lighting up the sides and the floor far below. “I don’t see anyone,” he said.
“Were you expecting anyone? The planet has been dead for millions of years before we got here.”
“Huh.” Hugh turned around and maneuvered into the hole legs first. He slid down slowly and methodically. The cam made it easy — he basically sat in the t-section while controlling the speed of decent with his “bad” arm. With his left hand, Hugh held on to the cord above his head. It was a good thing the gravity was only two-thirds of his homeworld, although after a decade here, Hugh was pretty acclimated to the lower G’s.
He made it down without a problem. The floor was covered by more sand and made for a soft landing. Enry-o pulled the cord back up, moved the cam to the top, and dropped it down again. Hugh squatted and held the cord taut to make it easier for her to descend.
“Well, that was easy.” Enry-o was down in less than a minute. “I wish we had a flare to mark the spot.”
“I don’t think we should travel out of sight of our exit point,” Hugh said. He was feeling the tons of rock above him as if they were resting directly on his shoulders. It was an unpleasant feeling. He considered giving himself an anti-anxiety shot, but he was worried that he might have a concussion from the fall and Enry-o might think him soft. So instead, Hugh closed his eyes and did a series of breathing exercises. When he was done, he saw that Enry-o was looking at him, but she didn’t comment.
“I think we should stay together,” he said. “I’ll go in front and check for stability.” To Hugh’s disappointment, Enry-o didn’t protest the arrangement. She was lighter and it was her idea to go down and explore…but he stopped himself from thinking that way and stepped away from the hanging cord.
They used their lights to scan this lower cavity as far as possible. There were many twisting columns that erupted from the floor and rose to intertwine above their heads, forming another complex ceiling, woven from hundreds and hundreds of different thickness hexagonal rocks… Stalagmites? Hugh hadn’t decided if he was ready to give intentionality to the structure. Enry-o made a good point that this could be the work of some low intelligence creature or even some physical or chemical process that they simply didn’t understand yet. So for now, they were spelunking and not ruins hunting. For now…
“Hugh, look!” Enry-o called him to the base of one of the formations of twelve hexagonal columns. Hugh walked over and bent down to examine the etchings that Enry-o was pointing out. “They repeat,” she said.
Sure enough, each column had a repeating swirl intersected with a whooshing symbol. There were other shapes too, but there was no mistaking the recurring symbol. They were all identical as if cut from the same pattern.
“Crystals grow according to structures dictated by their chemical compositions,” Hugh said cautiously.
“They do,” Enry-o agreed. “But even crystals are not really identical. No two snowflakes are the same. These,” she pointed to each of the twelve designs, “are identical.”
Hugh took the time to double and triple check the designs for any variations or anomalies, but then conceded: “identical.”
“That’s what I’m saying!” Enry-o was flush with excitement.
“Do you see any others?” he asked.
“Other repeating symbols?”
“Yes. You’re better at identifying the symbols among the noise,” Hugh said. He marveled at how fast Enry-o managed to do so. “I will search too. But I’m better at comparing and verifying. I don’t think I would have spotted these.” He stood back and looked. Even from a short distance, the etchings all blended together.
Enry-o walked to the next nexus of hexagon columns. Her spotlights generated strange moving shadows, all jumbled and confused. The forest of columns made it difficult to understand the scope of this underground cavity.
Hugh stayed where he was. After years of looking for evidence, finding it was overwhelming. He didn’t really know how he felt about it. Was he happy? Scared? Mostly he felt confused. They’ve been operating in the vicinity of this underground complex — for this place was obviously large — for years. Why did they only find it now? Logically, it didn’t make sense. Hugh’s hand strayed to the artifact around his neck again. He felt it through layers of protective material. It was a familiar and comforting gesture.
On strange impulse, he pulled up the environmental readings on his heads up display. The atmospheric temperature outside, on a summer night usually hovered at about -70°C. But here, in this sub-basement cave, it was just about 0°C. A full 70° warmer! It was cold, water-freezing cold, but not deadly. Hugh unbuttoned his survival suit and pulled out the artifact. The little intricate structure felt warm from the contact with his skin. Taking it between his thumb and forefinger, he rotated the complex patterns carved out of a small pebble in the light of his headlamp. After years of examining, playing, and fiddling with the thing, Hugh felt intimately familiar with its every curve. Now, looking at it here, deep under the surface of the planet, he saw the artifact as if for the first time. While before he saw it as a sculptural piece, now, in the flat stark light of his headlamps, it looked almost two-dimensional, each facet presenting a different pattern. Hugh lined it up with the symbols at his feet and rotated the artifact slowly. His heart beat so fast his suit issued a bio warning alert. Hugh ignored it.
Twist. Twist. Twist. And like magic, the symbol at the base of the hexagon columns and the flattened shape of the artifact clicked into alignment.
Hugh forgot to breathe. If before there was a possibility that the symbols Enry-o discovered were made by some natural process, it was dashed now. The repeating swirl intersected with a whooshing symbol was screaming at him, and he couldn’t help but listen.
“Hugh? Hugh!” Enry-o was calling him. “What’s wrong with you?” Apparently, she had been calling him for some time. She walked over and was now looking at the artifact in Hugh’s hand. “What is it?” she asked.
Hugh bent down and tried to adjust the artifact’s perspective to work for Enry-o. “Look,” he said.
“Huh.” She looked for some time and then took the artifact from Hugh and walked away. He felt the separation from it like a physical blow. “Look here,” she called from another column formation. She was turning the artifact and after just a few rotations stopped. “Perfect match here too,” she said and handed the artifact back to Hugh.
It took him a moment to calm down, but then Hugh oriented his artifact toward the new design Enry-o found. Twist, turn, he got a match.
“What do you think it means?”
“That this was made on purpose,” Hugh said, his voice flat. “And not by some damn super alien ants.”
“I think so too.” She walked over to the next formation and the next. “There’re symbols on each one of these. Bring that thing here and confirm that these also fit some rotational plane of that thing.”
Hugh did as he was told. The artifact fit each of the symbols that Entry-o discovered. There were dozens, perhaps hundreds more of the base formations. Hugh would have bet his soul that there were symbols on all of them and that each of those fit some rotational angle of his artifact.
“We saw this one before.” Entry-o pointed. “A spiral–”
“With two lines,” Hugh finished.
“What does this mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“They must want us to solve their riddle. Why else are we here?” Enry-o said.
“They got us down here on purpose. They gave you that artifact,” Enry-o said. “They want to communicate with us.”
“They didn’t build this whole place just to communicate with us.” Hugh stressed the word “they.” “This place must be hundreds of millennia old. For as long as our civilization existed, this planet has been just a cold dust ball.” Hugh didn’t want to argue. “I think we need to find a way back up to the surface,” he said. “We can’t survive here for long. And we can’t share this discovery with anyone if we are dead.”
“I agree,” Enry-o said in a small voice. Hugh instantly saw that behind the bravado of the last few hours, Enry-o was just as scared and tired as he was. He came over and gave her a hug. “Come on,” she said after disengaging carefully, trying not to hurt his shoulder. “Let’s get out of here.”
They turned back and followed their footprints back to the rope. It was easy going at first, but then some of the prints seemed smeared. Some were gone altogether.
“I think I saw one disappear,” Enry-o said. She was walking, holding Hugh’s hand now, as if afraid he’d vanish, too.
“I think you are right,” he said. “But there is no wind here. There is nothing to shift the sand.”
“No,” Enry-o agreed. They walked a bit farther until their old footprints disappeared altogether. She stopped, turned back, and screamed.
Hugh wasn’t expecting her to act so radically, and he found himself screaming too, before he even realized the cause for such extreme reaction — their footprints behind them were gone!
“We need to rest,” Enry-o announced and collapsed down onto the soft sandy floor. Hugh joined her. His heart rate, which hadn’t been beating within a normal range since he first fell through the surface of the planet, was now at a dangerously high level. He shut off the medical alert and forced himself through a series of breathing exercises to restore his ability to think. Next to him, Enry-o was doing the same, working hard to control her panic.
“We’re at full power and thus have water and air. We’re warm and in no danger from the elements. There’s a rescue mission looking for us,” Hugh rattled off their status.
“You don’t know that.”
“We do know. That’s a standard operating procedure.”
“We’re in no immediate danger, disappearing footprints notwithstanding. We’re okay.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m scared, Hugh,” she added in a very little girl kind of voice. That more than the breathing exercises restored some of Hugh’s calm. He was responsible for their well-being. He was the senior member of their team. He has been on this planet the longest. It was his artifact. He needed to solve this and get Enry-o safely back on top.
“Right,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean we need to think rationally,” he said. “There’s no one here with us. There’s no wind. So there must be some other logical explanation for the missing footprints.”
“Did we ever look at this sand close up?” he asked after considering their situation for a few minutes.
Instead of answering, Enry-o pulled out a portable microscope from her pack, scooped a few grans of sand into her hand, and poured it into the device. Hugh watched her patiently. Enry-o was good at this. She was an engineer, a scientist. She got this. He made himself wait for Enry-o to announce the results.
“Well?” he asked when she didn’t speak. “Do you see anything unusual?”
“Yes,” she said and pushed the scope to him.
Hugh looked. At first, all he saw was a bunch of simple silicon crystals — nothing special. But then something moved. His hand shook and Enry-o steadied him so he wouldn’t drop the microscope. He looked again. There it was — a tiny grain of sand…no, make that five grains, were moving steadily on their own volition inside the scope.
“Smart sand,” Enry-o said. “I should have guessed.”
“Smart sand?” Hugh was slow on the uptake. But then he had spent years looking at this planet’s sand and had never seen anything smart about it.
“The moving ones?”
“That’s smart sand. Or micro-bots, whichever you prefer.”
“I prefer dumb sand,” Hugh said. Enry-o didn’t even smile. “So, is it one of ours?” The terraforming crew brought all sorts of devices that were steadily preparing the planet of occupation. Hugh hadn’t heard of micro-bots, but then he wasn’t on the front lines of the project either.
“Definitely not one of ours.” Enry-o leaned back and pulled off her helmet.
“What are you doing?” screamed Hugh, trying to stop her. Suicide was not a reaction he was prepared to deal with right now…or ever.
“Check your readings, Hugh,” she said.
Hugh checked, it was fine to remove the helmet. Enry-o suit’s alarms weren’t even going off — the suit judged the outside environment safe.
Hugh took off his helmet. The air smelled a bit stale. He took a deep breath and felt no ill effects. It was stupid and not at all scientific, of course, but at this point, what did they have to lose?
“This stuff,” Enry-o continued, “is all over our suits. I’m sure the micro-bots penetrated inside too — that’s how our power regenerated.”
Hugh looked inside his helmet and saw flakes of sand. He didn’t place them into the microscope — there was no need. These were obviously micro-bots or smart sand, as Enry-o called it.
“I’ve never seen them above ground, but they must be up there too,” Enry-o said.
“How did we miss it for all those years?”
“Perhaps it didn’t want to be found?” Enry-o said.
“Smart sand works as a hive mind of particles. The larger the hive, the smarter the sand,” she said.
Hugh looked around the endless landscape of sand. “How smart?” he asked after he took the time to digest to the implications.
“I don’t know, but smart enough to get us down here.”
“You think?” Hugh didn’t finish his thought, he wasn’t ready.
“I don’t know, Hugh. It might be just smart. Like technology left over from some great civilization.”
“Or it might be the great civilization left inside the smart sand.”
“What’s the difference?” Hugh asked, but he already knew. The smart sand could potentially be sentient, intelligent being — a consciousness distributed among billions and billions of tiny grains of smart sand. A planet-full of sand!
“All those years they’ve been watching us, drifting South to North, North to South, watching us crash into the surface over and over again, shifting through our things when we finally made it–”
“Rummaging through our equipment,” Hugh said. “Cleaning our explorer bots.”
“We never suspected a thing.”
“Why should we have?”
“This could be the first contact,” Enry-o said, fear and awe mixed in equal measure in her trembling voice. “The First Contact,” she emphasized the idea.
They sat quietly for a moment contemplating the idea.
“Hello?” Hugh called out into the darkness, feeling stupid.
The sand in front of them shifted, and they read: “Hello, Hugh Man.”
“Shifting Sands” was first published in the eleventh issue of Alien Dimensions, Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine of Short Stories. Alien Dimensions reserve the right of first publication for twelve months and then expire the issue, allowing the authors to continue sharing their work.